Director/co-writer Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman chronicles the life of notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) who earned the nickname for freezing the bodies of his victims to throw authorities off his trail. A man of many contradictions, Kuklinski was by various accounts a loving husband, a devoted father, and a ruthless hitman who concealed his work from his family. Opening on May 3rd, the film also stars Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, Ray Liotta and Robert Davi.
At the recent press day, Vromen talked about why he thought Kuklinski’s story would make a fascinating film, how he convinced Shannon to shoot a test scene that helped secure the financing, why the ying yang dynamic between Shannon and Ryder worked so well, what led to some of the surprising casting choices for the supporting roles and how he balanced those with veterans of the genre, and why he was inspired by American mob movies while growing up in Israel. He also discussed his next project, Narco, a drug-centric action thriller set in the world of narco-trafficking submarines. Hit the jump to read the interview.
Ariel Vromen: I saw the documentary and I saw all the materials about him. I saw all the outtakes. I identified that there was something about this character that was not just black and white. There is a grey area that he’s zoning between, trying to find himself within himself. He didn’t understand that he was a sociopath. He was not aware that he was sick. He didn’t know how to translate the fact that he could do this, because he killed when he was 16 for the first time. In the beginning, it was to defend himself from either the bully in the neighborhood or from anything that he felt was threatening his own security. At one point, he took that talent and used it to provide a dream, a fantasy world that he created. I think it was seeing that duality and identifying it as a character base to start a movie. I wasn’t necessarily applauding the movement of the structure of the script. I was very fascinated by it. I knew that he would be a great character. And then, getting Michael Shannon to play this role was a complete triumph for me, because it’s not easy to get financing with only the idea of creating a film.
Why did you fight so hard?
Vromen: I was a soldier, and then I was a law student, and then there came a point where I wanted to be more involved in the post-production world of filmmaking. I was not interested in being a director or producer or writer. And then, I was very lucky on my first movie because, believe it or not, my assistant ended up financing it. Seriously, we went to Toronto, and I went into my [hotel] room and there was a check waiting for me from a guy that interned with me for three months. It was a very easy step away from getting into directing, but I didn’t know the responsibilities of the director. I didn’t know what it really meant to tell a story. And then, afterwards, I was taken away to another place, to another film where I had just replaced the director, and I didn’t have a very good start. I went back and looked at a lot of directors that I admired during my career. I identified that the third movie is either the make or break of a filmmaker, where you have enough maturity in your personality and in your understanding of film, and also, you don’t have just that one lucky charm that some filmmakers have on their first movie, and it’s like huge success and then where are they because they invested so much in one film. I knew that the next movie I did was either going to be my last movie or the beginning of a career that I hoped to have. Choosing one is almost like committing suicide on that one. You must have perseverance and you’re struggling with so many obstacles along the way.
Vromen: I saw Michael at the Oscar party for Revolutionary Road and I approached him. He was very charming and nice, but he said, “You cannot finance a movie with me, so good luck to you.” And then, I saw him again a couple months afterwards in a restaurant in Los Angeles, and I came back and I said, “We’ve got to do something.” He said, “Well, you’ll figure it out.” His agent didn’t know what to do and everybody was very perplexed. Then I decided to shoot a test scene with him to show his ability to play that character and how perfect he was for that and to show my ability to keep the tone at least for the film and what kind of a movie I was trying to make. That was a good selling tool for the buyers that bought the movie. It really helps, because I know some directors, and for them, he’s a no name actor. How do you bring a group of creative people together and trust that they’re actually going to make the right film? Sometimes you’ve got to show them five minutes of the movie before the movie is shot.
What scene did you shoot?
Vromen: We shot the scene with Mr. Freezy at the park, but instead of Chris Evans, I had Michael Wincott play that, which was a completely different tone but still very, very dark. In that scene, when his family is mentioned, you can see that rage coming out of Michael. That range that Michael has in him bought everybody. Everybody said, “There’s no question. That’s the guy.”
You’re from Israel. What kind of fascination does another country have with our American mob?
Vromen: We all grew up on those movies. They were the biggest movies of the 70s, and also Goodfellas was ’91 and The Godfather movies. The entire last decade we were suffocated by The Sopranos, the New Jersey crime family and this world of Italian mobsters and all that stuff. But, I don’t think The Iceman is a mob movie as much. It’s actually an un-glorified mob movie. It’s a point of view of a foreigner that comes into a world of mobsters and is never going to be a part of it and is never going to be a part of that glorification of being a gangster. That’s also a question that every filmmaker has got to ask himself the day he gets the material, and this script reads exactly like that movie. They even beat you. “You’re doing this with that.” And you’re like, “Okay, so I’m going to make those two movies together but without Will Smith?” With every material that you get, I think you need to have that challenge to say, “Okay, we’re telling a story that’s a real familiar story, but how can we tell it differently, at least for the enjoyment of the hour and a half that you’re watching the movie?”
There are so many different avenues you could have gone down with all the rich characters that Kuklinski touched in his life. How did you narrow it down and pick the characters that you chose for the film?
Vromen: We focused on the love story. We started the movie on a date and we ended on the separation of the family. For every character that had to be brought in, sometimes there were three people that we had to combine into one person. There were two forces of [inaudible] that came from the Lucchese family and from the Gambino family, but we had to say, “We’re going to choose two and just keep it straight from the Gambinos and the Demeo gang.” It’s hard to tell a 20-year complex mob story in 100 minutes where the movie is so intimate. You have the family that was a big part of it, and you have the dark side which was the other part, and you’re going between one and the other.
Vromen: It was Maggie Gyllenhaal first, and she got pregnant, and then I was looking for [a replacement]. This is what’s called “the good Hollywood mistakes.” She chose to be pregnant three months before production, and I met Winona on the movie. Obviously, she’s a brilliant actress. It was just a matter of whether I would have the trust to bring her back into a role like that and playing against Michael Shannon. She was obsessed about Michael Shannon. She loved him so much and I saw that. There was something about it that was going to work for us. She’s so fragile as a person and he’s so masculine as a human being. Again, that duality, the ying and yang energy between the two of them, was very successful, I think. How did I bring her in? Funkle.
What about Chris Evans? It’s such an unusual role for him.
Vromen: Well, with Chris Evans, sometimes he’s focused more on his muscles than he is on his words in movies, but for him, suddenly it was a great challenge to come on board. He actually saved the day. I mean, without Chris Evans, The Iceman wouldn’t have been made because James Franco was supposed to play that role. And then, because we had to push the production because of Michael’s schedule, James dropped out for this specific role. We were literally a month before production and it was like, “What are we doing?” I’ve known Chris for a long time, and he’s a good friend and he said, “I love the script and I love Michael Shannon.” Everybody said to me, “I love the script and I love Michael Shannon.” And I’m like, “Then come and watch.” So that was the Chris Evans thing. Again, not a lot of filmmakers, but some filmmakers, take a risk on casting the non-typical actors and either they destroy their movie because they are so into their own ideas or they make something that is special. So, it was some luck and some balls to go and get guys like David Schwimmer, Stephen Dorff and Chris Evans in roles that you never expect them to do.
Vromen: Yes. I’ve got to tell you something. Robert Davi was a gem of a guy to work with. He’s an amazing person. Ray Liotta, for instance, hasn’t done any mob movies since Goodfellas. But we are used to seeing Goodfellas again, again and again. So, of course, Ray Liotta is a mobster. He did it all his life. It’s funny. For me, casting Ray Liotta, I needed somebody that was scary. By the way, even today, I’m still scared of Ray Liotta.
We’re all with you on that one.
Vromen: There’s something about him. He’s a sweetheart. He never was in a fight. He smiling. But then, he can be like, “What happened to that meeting we were supposed to do!? Huh?” And he would walk away from you like, “What am I doing?” I’d start sweating. I was very happy to have him because I needed to bring somebody that sits in front of Michael Shannon and to feel that Michael Shannon is actually afraid of Ray Liotta. Ray was the perfect casting for that.
You changed Barbara Kuklinski’s name to Deborah Pellicotti and Robert Davi’s character, Leo Marks, was also changed from Nino Gaggi. Was it a legal issue because Barbara would not give permission?
Vromen: Yes. She also changed the entire story. In the beginning, she was completely the victim in terms of not knowing. Even in court, if you research what happened in court, there are over a thousand pages of her testimony, and she never mentioned the fact that she was completely abused and violated and they were living in jail.
Vromen: That came out in 2000 when Philip Carlo wrote his own book (The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer) about Kuklinski, and I think at that point Kuklinskii was already The Iceman. It was over a decade after HBO shot him, and that first documentary was a big success. There was a book that Anthony Bruno wrote (The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer). I think he became The Iceman. It was like he was reading every murder committed by the mob and taking credit for everything. If he’s taking credit for being the most ruthless killer of all time, then the wife’s got to say, “Well I was the biggest victim of all time.” I’m not saying that she wasn’t to a certain extent, and I think we can see in the movie as well that there was some kind of what I would say is more mental abuse than physical abuse. The reason I changed the name was so as not to have a direct relationship because we couldn’t say that at that time. The family saw the movie about a week ago and they loved it. They’re all coming to support us at the premiere in New York, which made me feel good because I think I did justice to them. In a way, they were not completely crazy to love their father. It’s really true.
Will any members of the Gambino or Genovese families show up?
Vromen: No, but Bob Carroll (New Jersey prosecutor) and Dominick Polifrone (ATF special agent) and some of the cops, the ATF agents, and the guys that arrested him will be at the premiere in New York. John Gotti was not available.
Vromen: I did, although today it’s completely different. Today it’s just gangster world, a gangster for the sake of making money, but the organization is a lot less classy. The whole idea of respect has been lost. Today, the first question is, “Whose gang are you a part of?” The crime world today is either levels of white collar crime or street crime. The organized crime in Brooklyn and the New Jersey area has really changed in the last two decades. I didn’t research it, but having a lot of conversations, reading a lot of books, and watching a lot of movies helps you. Also, talking to the police officers that at that time were running the show against those guys helps you a lot because you hear the point of view of how they really saw the mob and what all the little details were that they saw. But again, it was not really a movie about the Mafia.
If this guy hadn’t found someone to pay him to kill people, do you think he would have ended up as a serial killer and done it anyway?
Vromen: I’m not sure. For sure, he was not a serial killer because he never got any satisfaction from killing. After a while, when you’re killing so many people and you’re good at that, and it’s providing for your own existence and your own fantasy world, you’re definitely getting some kind of empowerment. Obviously, one of my favorite stories is the one that he wanted to challenge God. He wanted to be challenged. I think he wanted to know what was wrong with him. Was he a killer? Probably. Let’s say Kuklinski had a real job. Let’s say he was really working for Disney doing cartoons. And then, one day, his boss comes over and tells him, “By the way, the way you cut Snow White was terrible. That chapter, that episode, was horrific. And you know what? You motherfucker, you should get out of here. You’re fired.” Now Richard Kuklinski has a real job, a real salary, a real family. Suddenly, he’s facing his security being shattered. He has to go back home. He cannot provide. It’s all the same elements. If you asked me if that head of the Snow White department at Disney would get killed, I’d say probably. But again, it was not done out of satisfaction or methodic killing or anything like that. I think it was absolutely the same pattern of insecurity and the need to protect himself.
What do you have coming up next?
Vromen: I just finished a new script a couple of days ago. We’ve started casting it. It’s called Narco, and it’s in the world of narco-trafficking submarines. It’s a big national security threat because there are over 70 narco-trafficking submarines or narco-subs going in the Pacific Ocean and in the Gulf. I just spent some time in Colombia and I found that world fascinating. I’d like to do a movie about trust this time. As you can tell, I’m really excited. It’s an exciting project. I’m hoping that will be next. If not, there are a couple movies with the studio that I’m attached to. So, here we go again!